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GOP governors warn they will fight for welfare money

Suspicious of their party leaders in Washington, Republican governors applauded Congress' tax cut plan Saturday but warned that they will not let GOP lawmakers raid state budgets to pay for it.

Republican congressional leaders have considered asking the nation's governors to return up to $6-billion in welfare money to help balance the books on their 10-year, $792-billion tax cut proposal.

Several governors accused fellow Republicans in Washington of trying to renege on pledges to ship the money to states. They suggested the development could damage their promised partnership with Washington.

"This must be a calamitous staff error, because I can't believe they would do this to us," said Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, attending the four-day National Governors' Association meeting, which opened Saturday.

"They would lose a great deal of credibility, and I don't think they want to do that," said Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, a national leader on welfare reform.

A growing force in Republican politics, the GOP governors said they are confident congressional leaders are preparing to back down.

But even the prospect of success has not dampened the state leaders' bitterness. For most governors, the first word of a plan to seek state money came from press accounts _ not their leadership in Washington.

Governors do not like being kept out of the loop, especially after the leadership promised in 1998 to give them a greater role in framing policy.

"With any partnership, you've got to make sure your partner is reliable," Gov. John Engler of Michigan said.

The governors' stock rose after huge victories in the 1998 elections underscored the popularity of their mainstream, can-do politics while confrontational congressional Republicans suffered a series of election-night defeats.

Seeking the return of money would be an irony for a political party whose oft-stated philosophy is to dispense dollars and power to the states. It also might force Republican governors to forsake tax cuts at home for spending needs in Washington.

The proposal posed a dilemma for Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the elected leader of the nation's second-largest state and the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination.

Spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said Bush "supports keeping the funds in the states and hopes Congress will listen to the nation's governors on this issue."

Under welfare reform legislation enacted in 1996, the nation's governors were guaranteed current levels of funding for five years. Governors lobbied for the guarantee, saying they had assumed a heavy risk because the need for welfare money could outstrip the supply of federal money.

The states have dramatically reduced welfare rolls and, in some cases, have surplus money.

The idea of seeking state money was broached last month by Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the GOP whip, and approved by Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

Several governors and their aides said they suspected the idea was leaked to reporters to test the level of opposition, which is high.

"It's fizzled," Thompson said of the idea. He and several other high-profile state executives personally lobbied congressional leaders in recent days.

Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., and Hastert are making separate appearances at the governors' meeting and are expected to offer an olive branch, state officials said.

But there was no clear signal Saturday that the leadership was backing down.

Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the House, said Saturday he has not heard from an unhappy governor. A second House GOP leader, Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, was more pointed: "If it's good to cut taxes at the state level, it's good to cut taxes at the federal level," he said.

President Clinton, former governor of Arkansas, has promised to veto the GOP tax plan, and may warn governors in a speech today at their meeting that the cuts will hurt state budgets.

There are 31 Republican governors and 17 Democrats. Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota is a member of the Reform Party. Gov. Angus King of Maine is an independent.

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